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Turning Japanese

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Turning Japanese

Postby Rob Allanson » Thu Apr 25, 2013 12:21 pm

While some malt whisky enthusiasts claim they will go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of their passion, Speyside hotelier Duncan Elphick has just about done that.

Not only does he make frequent 18,000-mile round trips to Japan to promote single malt Scotch whisky but his Highlander Inn in Craigellachie – the heart of Scotland’s malt whisky industry - has the largest collection of Japanese single malts outside south-east Asia.

And for the past 12 years Duncan has employed experts directly from Japan to ensure that his customers and the hundreds of whisky connoisseurs who visit each year get the full Japanese malt whisky experience.

Until recently the role of whisky ‘otaku’ –it translates roughly as fanatic-was held by Yumi Yoshikawa who is about to return to Japan. Her successor, Mayu Hamanisi, from Osaka is expected take up her role at the Highander Inn, recently voted one of the top 50 whisky bars in the world by the influential Whisky Magazine, in a few weeks’ time.

Duncan, who is gearing up for an influx of visitors during the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival from May 2-6, says, “My own journey into the world of malt whisky began with a visit to the Glenfiddich Distillery in l979 and I have been on that journey ever since. You just never stop learning and finding out something new.

“Just because the hotel is at the very epicentre of the Speyside whisky industry, I have no problem whatsoever in stocking and displaying Japanese malt whisky alongside our collection of around 400 different malts from Scotland.

“But if anyone questions it, I remind them that a Japanese single malt -Yamazaki 25- year- old - has been voted the best single malt in the world for the past four years running.”

Only 200 were released in Europe and there is a bottle of the precious liquid behind the bar at the Highlander Inn. Even at £50 for a small measure, quite a few have been enjoyed over the years.

The winning whisky was made by the Suntory company which was founded in 1923 whose master distiller and creator of Japan’s first single malt was Masataka Taketsuru. He learned his craft at Glasgow University and by visiting countless distilleries in Scotland. He married Rita Cowan, a doctor’s daughter from Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, and today the couple have legendary status in Japan where they are known as the mother and father of the Japanese whisky industry.

Duncan may not have statues erected to him for his support of the whisky industry but nevertheless dedicated whisky lovers regard The Highlander, built as a private house in 1880s before becoming a bar in the l960s, as a shrine to the single malt.

Before buying The Highlander, Duncan, who previously worked in Africa, Iraq and Zimbabwe was appointed manager of the nearby Craigellachie Hotel in l997. At that time it had a collection of over 500 single malts in its famous Quaich Bar.

He bought the Highlander in 2005. He explains, “We couldn’t compete with some of the other bars in terms of numbers so we went for more interesting, unusual and older bottlings, such as those from the 1970s and 1980s. We have quite a lot of independent bottling, too, and ones which you just can’t get anywhere else.

Duncan, a former chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, added: “I like to think that my staff and I have helped raise the profile of malt whisky - and made The Highlander one of the most popular venues during the Festival - because we are all passionate.

“It’s not just about having shelves full of rare and interesting malts. If you don't have both the necessary knowledge and passion, all those bottles become expensive decoration.”

This year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival runs from May 2-6. For full details visit: www.spiritofspeyside.com
Rob Allanson
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